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The wonders of German civil registration

Johanna Henrietta Hüneke, born 1840

She was born at 11 p.m. at her parents’ home in a workingman’s neighborhood. Her father was a 37-year-old cigar maker. Her mother was age 32.1 She had two older half-sisters from her father’s first marriage,2 and an older brother3 and sister4 of the full blood. She was not quite five months old when she was baptized by Pastor Knippenberg at St. Peter’s Cathedral church.5

That birth — of Johanna Henriette Hüneke — was 172 years ago today. She was my second great grandmother, born 2 June 1840 in Bremen, Germany,6 married there at the age of 21 to Jacobus Johannes Smidt — a citizen and cooper of the city — on 17 Oct 1861,7 had three children there,8 died there on 1 March 1919 and was buried there in Walle Cemetery on 6 March 1919.9

One hundred and seventy-two years ago. And yet so much detail! How is that even remotely possible?

The answer: the German civil registration records. Records with a wealth of detail that’s almost impossible for those of us with plain-vanilla American ancestors (like so many of mine on my mother’s side) to even imagine. Want a father’s name? It’s usually there. A mother’s name including maiden name? Usually there. Ages? Yep. Occupations? Yep again. Who gave the information for the record? Yep again. Witnesses, if any? Yep. And their occupations and citizen status too.

In other words, a genealogical goldmine for Americans with German ancestors — and that’s roughly about one-sixth of all Americans. More Americans self-identify with German ancestry than with any other European country — and only slightly behind those self-identifying as Hispanic.10

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Germany during the French occupation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The earliest civil registration records were in 1792 in Alsace-Lorraine; the latest areas to adopt civil registration did so by 1876.11 In Bremen, the city of my grandmother’s people, civil registration records go back to 1811.

The very earliest records can be challenging even to someone with a decent working knowledge of the language (or a really good German-English dictionary). They tend to be all handwritten and the German script is, well, challenging is a good word. (I can think of others, but they’re the kind of words that used to get my mouth washed out when I was a kid…) The script can still be a headache on later records, but — as you can see here — much of the information on records even as early as 1840 was entered on preprinted forms. And, for the most part, the clerks entering the information wrote pretty clearly.

You don’t have to be fluent in German to work with civil registration records. Knowing the key words (geburten = births and heiraten = marriages, for example) will speed up your work, but working through the text word for word with a dictionary is definitely do-able.

There are resources on the internet to help with handwritten German script. Omniglot is a good place to start. And the FamilySearch Handwriting Guide: German Gothic is a good resource as well.

For long records with a lot of handwritten information, working with a translator can be extremely helpful. What I found most helpful in dealing with the handwriting was identifying all of the words and phrases in records that I simply couldn’t make out and having a translator both transcribe and translate for me. That way, when I ran across a word or phrase in a later record that I’d already come across in an earlier document, I had a ready reference source.

Is it easy? No. Is it frustrating? Often. Is it worth it? Using only the civil registration records, not only can I report on Johanna and her 1840 birth and baptism, plus those of her brothers and sisters (including a younger sister12), but on the marriage of her parents Johann Heinrich Hüneke and Dorothea Mahnken in 1834.13 That earlier marriage record, in turn, identified Johann’s parents as Heinrich Hüneke and Anna Margarethe Glade and Dorothea’s parents as Cord Mahnken and Metha Pingel.

And then there’s the death record of Johanna’s grandfather Heinrich Hüneke, a laborer, who died at home at age 66, at 2 a.m. on 8 November 1843, the death being reported by Johanna’s father Johann Heinrich Hüneke, then a 42-year-old cigarmaker14 and…

So is it worth it? You tell me.


  1. Zivilstandsregister, Geburten (Civil status registers, births), 1811-1875, Johanna Henriette Hüneke, Geburten 1840, Reg. Nr. 681 (5 Jun 1840), p. 338; Standesamt (registry office), Bremen, Germany; FHL microfilm 1344158.
  2. Ibid., Louise Caecilie Hüneke, Geburten 1829, Reg. Nr. 441 (29 Apr 1829), p. 218; FHL microfilm 1344153. Also, ibid., Anna Catharina Margarethe Hüneke, Geburten 1831, Reg. Nr. 1134 (7 Nov 1831), p. 557; FHL microfilm 1344154.
  3. Ibid., Carl Heinrich Hüneke, Geburten 1836, Reg. Nr. 340 (26 Mar 1836), p. 166; FHL microfilm 1344156.
  4. (Ibid., Meta Dorothea Hüneke, Geburten 1837, Reg. Nr. 1460 (30 Dec 1837), p. 721; FHL microfilm 1344157.
  5. Ibid., Johanna Henriette Hüneke, Geburten 1840, Reg. Nr. 681 (5 Jun 1840), p. 338.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., J.J. Smidt and Johanne Henriette Hüneke, Heiraten (marriages) 1861, p. 248; FHL microfilm 1344201.
  8. Ibid., Johann Hinrich Smidt, Geburten 1863, Reg. Nr. 2342 (4 Dec 1863), p. 1169; FHL microfilm 1344173. Also, ibid., Juliane Margarethe Smidt, Geburten 1864, Reg. Nr. 2367 (15 Nov 1864), p. 1177. Also, ibid., Johann Heinrich Smidt, Geburten 1870, Reg. Nr. 2478 (26 Sep 1870), p. 1231; FHL microfilm 1344178.
  9. Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875-1939” (Funerary Records 1875-1939), Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen ( : accessed 1 Jun 2012).
  10. Frank Bass / Bloomberg News,“ Americans of German descent top list of ethnic groups,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ( : accessed 1 Jun 2012).
  11. FamilySearch Wiki (, “Germany Civil Registration,” rev. 22 Apr 2012.
  12. Zivilstandsregister, Geburten 1811-1875, Elise Wilhelmine Hüneke, Geburten 1844, Reg. Nr. 436 (23 Mar 1844), p. 215; FHL microfilm 1344160.
  13. Ibid., Johann Hinrich Hüneke and Dorothea Mahnken, Heiraten 1834, p. 422; FHL microfilm 1344190.
  14. Ibid., Todesfälle (deaths), 1811-1875, Hinrich Hüneke, Todten 1843, Reg. Nr. 1077 (9 Nov 1843), p. 539; FHL microfilm 1344223.
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